How to Score the Best Hotel Room Upgrades

I was riffing yesterday morning over at Milepoint on different ways to get upgraded at hotels and thought I’d share the advice here as well and maybe blow it out a bit.

Back in 2005 I offered up some recommendations, the upshot of which was to find a way to just ask (without being a jerk).

I think I’m a bit more experienced now than I was then, and can offer some additional insight, hopefully some of it is new or will spark some idea about how to go about it. The crux of the advice from back in 2005 remains, though. There are a lot of guests in a hotel, man of which have some sort of status, and some get the upgrade and some don’t, some get the ‘special’ suites while others get the more mundane ones. And there are things that you can do to distinguish yourself, and it usually does have more to do with your mojo and strategy than about who you are in a hotel’s program (super-secret special hotel levels notwithstanding). That’s one of the interesting things about hotels versus airlines, where the advice commonly given about how you dress or whom to ask for an upgrade is almost always wrong. With a hotel it can actually work out.

Elite upgrades aren’t all created equal.

Let’s not over estimate the importance of ‘technique’, because hotel elite status obviously matters a lot. It’s the excuse to askand ticket in the door. But lots of people have status. And not all programs are created equal; Marriott, Hilton HHonors, and Priority Club don’t even include upgrades to suites as a published feature of their programs.

Hyatt will let their Diamond members confirm a suite at booking four times a year, but it’s not usually going to be one of the monster or ‘named’ suites.

Starwood’s upgrade program technically only extends to ‘standard’ suites.

The one program that I’ve found can be useful in getting the really high-end suites, and whose hotels often have them, is Intercontinental’s Royal Ambassador.

Here’s the Ambassador suite at the Intercontinental Singapore which I had back in February, booked a much more affordable room using the friends and family rate and they provided their standard ‘two category upgrade’ which they don’t “cap” (some hotels won’t upgrade beyond a certain level regardless of the room you book). I emailed the hotel ahead of time to ask their upgrade policy and they responded with a grid showing me what I needed to book in order to get a particular room type.

Here’s oen of my bookings in the Presidential Suite at the Intercontinental Manila, that was secured also using the friends and family rate, I think it was $175++. Here’s the living room (which also finished a baby grand piano).

I’ve also had exceptional upgrades to the Jimbaran Bay Suite at the Intercontinental Bali, the Diplomatic Suite at the Intercontinental Bangkok, and a Terrace Suite at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco to name just a few.

In all of the above cases, I contacted the hotel ahead of time to strategize my upgrade, and all were secured with a very reasonable rate booking (the Intercontinental Bangkok using a buy one get on free weekend night, back when you could use those to book a suite).

Of course, you don’t always want a monster suite, and a standard elite upgrade will do. Choosing your property matters a great deal. Some are just excellent at delivering the upgrades, such as the Westin Diplomatwhich has something like 86 suites in the upgrade pool and except for the week between Christmas and New Years will almost always deliver Starwood Platinum members a corner suite with wraparound balcony overlooking the ocean (and in some cases, also the intracoastal waterway).

Most Starwood properties in Asia will try to upgrade you, many in the US just don’t have enough suites to go around to all of their top level elites. Knowing which properties are good for elite upgrades is important if those upgrades are important to you. For instance, you’ll have massive competition at the Westin Maui, it’s a good property for what it is but Platinum status will only go so far there.

I had booked an odd mistake package deal that included the Fairmont Royal Yorkabout a year ago, and asked Fairmont for a status match. Now, I knew they didn’t dostatus matches generally, but that they usually replied to such requests with a confirmed suite upgrade certificate. Which they did in my case, and I used it on that stay. So there’s a different sort of example of leveraging a loyalty program for a suite… Confirmed suites are one of the things I do like about the Fairmont program.

Book through the right channels

Where you book mattersand I don’t mean like the Expedia commercial. If you’ve got an American Express Platinum or Centurion card,
Consider checking the Fine Hotels & Resorts rate at a property which will generally include an upgrade, breakfast, and an additional amenity. Centurion members can do even better, with an additional amenity beyond what’s shown for Platinum members like a folio credit.

Similar deals can usually be obtained by booking a property through a Virtuoso agent, so an Amex card isn’t really required.

Now, booking channel isn’t the only thing that determines your upgrade of course though the right booking channel can give you leverage or an opening for negotiating with the property. They’re supposed to try to give you an upgrade anyway, so might as well try for the best one possible. And you’re part of an overall relationship that they value.

On the other hand, I’ve been upgraded even on Priceline reservations, usually when the hotel winds up oversold and I’m checking in late, all of the standard rooms have already been assigned and they need to upgrade someone. Of course, that’s a situation when you also risk being walked to another property, you’re a no-name guest where they’re lessconcerned about the relationship. Booking through Priceline doesn’t help you get upgraded, I’m just saying it does happen.

In fact, if you aren’t booking through a preferred channel that pre-negotiates upgrades like Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts or Virtuoso, it’s generally best to book through a hotel website directly at least compared to online booking channels like Expedia or Hotels.com where the property canbe paying 20% or even (for a small, non-chain hotel) 40% of the room revenue to the booking service. Not that Expedia guests get the bad rooms mind you but there’s a reason that hotel chains like Starwood won’t even give points for those reservations let alone elite benefits, from the top on down there’s a mindset — which may or may not permeate to the particular hotel and down to the hotel’s front desk staff — that devalues those reservations due to their high costs.

Negotiating in advance

Upgrades can be arranged through correspondence with a manager.. GM, reservations manager, revenue manager, etc.

Before I had any sort of hotel status, I would often send a fax to the hotel with some request about my stay. Perhaps it was a special occasion, and could they give me the view I was looking forward to? I might have flowers delivered to the room so that they’re there when we arrive, that would force the hotel to pre-block a room, and while they were thus hand-selecting a room it would tend to be better than if left to the check-in desk. And I would send a fax rather than making a phone call usually on the theory that a piece of paper could be picked up and taken as an action item, whereas a person that I got on the phone might well forget to do anything I had asked.

Now, and with status, things are still quite negotiable. At the Sheraton Saigon I offered to spend points to get a Towers room. I had booked an award stay, and the hotel doesn’t upgrade from the main rooms to the Towers section as a status benefit. But they agreed to move me offer for points, confirmed in advance rather than an instant award at check-in, and then confirm my elite upgrade to a suite in the Towers section at the same time.

As mentioned, with Intercontinental properties given their widely varying upgrade procedures, I almost always email in advance. Whenever I care what type of room I’ll get, I want to know what type of room to book in order to get it. Frequently Intercontinentals will confirm upgrades in advance for Royal Ambassador members (that status being earned based on unpublished criteria, roughly 50-60 Priority Club nights and at least 3 different Intercontinental properties, but members who earn it can also refer a friend to it for a year).

Negotiating at Check-in

Various hotels give varying levels of discretion to front desk staff, Randy Petersen was quoted years ago in the New York Times suggesting walking up to the counter and saying something like, “By any chance, is that big presidential suite available? I just feel important tonight,” and it doesn’t hurt to ask, even jokingly, once in a blue moon it might work.

Sometimes it means ‘pushing’ at the check-in counter. When I arrived at the former Westin Rio Mar at 4pm, my pre-blocked junior suite wasn’t ready. They suggested I go have a drink or a late lunch and wait. I asked whether they were buying me lunch? Or if they’d like to find me a better room that was ready? The front office manager came over, typed a bit, and put me into an Atlantic Suite.

It can also mean just expressing disappointment once you get up to the room, returning to the front desk and asking the hotel to do better, Lucky had an interesting (and successful) experience with this recently.

Similarly, I mentioned my disappointment at the location of my suite at the Intercontinental Montelucia (ground floor, right next to the pool) and they moved me to a much larger suite… with its own back yard.

Now, In Las Vegas, “negotiating” means “tipping.”

On a 4-night stay at the Bellagio, a $100 bill at the check-in yielded a suite with 5 bathrooms.

I slipped the $100 under my credit card, and asked “I was wondering if there are any upgrades available, I’d love one of those great big penthouse suites.” The desk clerk typed away, took my credit card and stuck the $100 in her pocket, and told me that I’d enjoy my room very much (but that if I had any concerns, to please come back and speak with her and not anyone else.)

She had called me over from another line to help, I had been specifically avoiding her because conventional wisdom is that male clerks are more likely to respond favorably to the tip at check-in, and also because her line was directly next to where the manager on duty was standing. That didn’t concern her a bit, I assumed she was ‘kicking up’ and have written some posts in the past on the economics of tipping in travel and why hotels in Vegas in particular allow the practice to continue.

Mistake rates

I often prefer hotel mistake rates over airline ones, in fact I’ll usually eschew booking airfare glitches that don’t allow me to originate in my home city or that are non-upgradable coach. And I’ve rarely seen mistakes in true international first class. There are also far fewer airfare mistakes, at least of the sort of ‘jumbos’ that used to come around regularly, but hotels still do make pricing errors and sometimes choose to honor them.

My all-time favorite had to be the Le Meridien Khao Lak’s Ugandan Schillings ratewhich got me into their two-bedrooom oceanfront residence.

A couple of years ago I booked the W San Diego’s Extreme Wow Suite for the price of a deeply discounted regular room.

I’ve also missed out on plenty, I didn’t bother booking the Presidential Suite at the Conrad Bangkok (would have been great to pair with the Khao Lak villa!) because I had just gotten back from bangkok the week it was published…

Other suggestions?

The overall best technique varies by hotel and by chain, and it pays to investigate others’ experiences in advance. Kind of upgrades have y’all received and how have you gotten them?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I would love to see a video clip staged of Randy going up to the desk in NYC wanting to feel important !

  2. Hi Gary,
    You’re the best.
    But why isn’t a $100 “tip” a “bribe”?
    And if it’s a bribe, isn’t that kind of lame for someone as sophisticated as you to be suggesting as a practical tip?
    I like America because the rules are set up to help capital move from the least productive units to the most productive units. But the system only works if everyone plays by transparent ground rules.
    In other words, how is giving money to officials for a favor cool? That’s a tactic you’d see in a less-than-truly-capitalistic, less-than-truly-democratic country, no? Isn’t $100 tipping for a good room a blunt tactic that’s not especially creative or surprising, and (I would argue) undemocratic in a fundamentally destructive way?
    That said, sorry to be a pain. Your tips are fantastic, and your blog has been especially on fire this year.
    Kind regards,
    -Sean

  3. @Sean Las Vegas runs on tips the way the rest of the country (even in the US) does not, yes it is a bribe but it’s one that is nromal and acceptable in Vegas, and while you see it as unsophisticated I can tell you that ya feel like Sinatra when you’re doing it…

    As for why it persists, interesting equilibrium, the rooms are for the most part loss leaders in Vegas (except during peak demand periods like Computer Electronics SHow) and they want to accomodate high rollers plus the expectation of tips drives down the direct wage cost for the hotel. Perhaps they could maximize profit by stamping out tips, redistributing a piece back to the employees as wages, and I don’t think the reason they don’t is because monitoring costs are too high (it works well in every other American city), rather I think it’s something unique to the gambling and high spending nature of the surrounding businesses. But that’s just a hypothesis.

  4. A bribe is meant to induce illegal or dishonest action. Bribes are a (big) problem when they are expected or demanded by public officials to provide services that should be offered impartially and routinely to the public. When you’re paying a clerk in a hotel (a private business–I wouldn’t call the clerk an “official” at all) to do something extra special for you, I would call it a (large) tip, which is simply a reward for extra good service. Now, if the clerk required $100 just to give you the room type you reserved, or worse, any room at all, that would be a bribe. Even in Vegas, that doesn’t happen.

  5. The money under the credit card trick has always worked for me in Vegas too! I just wanted to note it is harder if you need two beds in a room than if you have just one. One time I tried it that way, and the guy finally accommodated me after telling me to come back the next day, and specifically to him, and he’d guarantee it.

    The next day he did it, but whispered to me that he could have gotten me a much nicer upgrade if it was just me, as a lot of the nicer upgrades in the lower-grade hotels just have king beds.

  6. You keep saying that you “email the hotel company”. Who exactly are you emailing to request these upgrades and how do you find these addresses? How can you get any email address other than some general info or customer service address?

  7. Sometimes I think upgrades are just plain luck.
    In December, I booked two rooms at the Westin Palace in Milan for just $83 per room per night. I’ve heard stories about “Priceline” rooms at that hotel which were originally built for servants to sleep in but I did not care because of the still excellent price and location.
    A week or two before my February stay, I saw a post online with instructions on how to get a free upgrade to Starwood Gold status. It worked and I emailed the hotel to ask for a room upgrade based on my status.
    They responded by giving me two lovely large corner rooms on the same floor.
    A few weeks later, my account was downgraded to Preferred Guest Plus but I definitely got my “money’s” worth.

  8. Gary or Andrew,

    Can you give a sample email that you might send to the hotel asking for an upgrade, but trying not to sound pushy?

  9. Walker, many hotels have an individual website that lists a property-specific email address for the manager. (The mgr him/herself typically won’t get it, but it will go to someone on staff at the location.) Here’s the one for Starwood’s Hotel Grand Bretagne in Athens, for instance: https://www.starwoodhotels.com/preferredguest/property/overview/contact.html?propertyID=101

    Jim, here’s a slightly-modified non-pushy email I’ve used in the past:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I’m writing with a request for my upcoming stay (reservation number ___, for [dates]).

    My [family member] and I will be visiting you on the occasion of our [birthday/50th anniversary/honeymoon/etc.]. For that reason, I’m hoping you might be able to upgrade our room, especially one [with better view/more space/other desired amenity].

    Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Yours,
    Mr. Beltway
    (member number __)

    Personally, I prefer not to tout my status overtly; others may feel different about it, but it makes me feel like I’m being a little self-important. Better, I think, to provide your rez and/or member number. Any half-competent ass’t manager will look for and act on your status when pulling up the record.

  10. You emai or fax the property directly. It’s easy to find that on the propery’s website. Come on, this isn’t rocket science!

  11. On how to get a hotel manager’s e-mail address, I was thinking you could call the front desk staff in advance and tell them you want the their manager’s e-mail address so you could tell them directly about the great customer service you/your family received during a recent stay. A little fib, but may excite the staffer and make them more willing to pass on an e-mail address to you.

  12. NIce tips. However, about the clerk in Ballagio, couldn’t you get her into trouble by posting this publicly? After all, you name is well known and they could look up who checked you in. Or, is it such a common Vegas thing that nobody would think twice about it?

  13. I typically send an email, and always include my status (why make them look it up?). I also find it works better to ask for a specific room or upgrade, rather than leaving in open ended. Finally, I mention what I read about the hotel recently on Trip Advisor or Flyer Talk, but do not promise to write anything specific (even I wouldn’t go that far!)…

  14. One other method to get the manager’s email, if anything else fails, is to look for the “terrible” and “poor” reviews on TripAdvisor where management responded and sometimes provided their email address to “discuss things further”.

  15. Gary, the image links in some of your older (2006) posts that you linked to here are broken. Would love if you could fix them so I can be jealous of the rooms you were upgraded to! 🙂

  16. Hi Gary,
    For Hyatt stays, I’m Diamond, but need to reserve two rooms in Istanbul for late summer (myself and one for parents). If I reserve both rooms under my name, will Diamond benefits apply for both? If booking with points?
    Thanks,

  17. Some pretty good options to try! I have to say I have yet to dare to try the tip trick in Vegas, it is not for everyone , but probably one of the place where it is the most worth trying. If all free upgrades options fails, there is always the paid route. bookasuite.com allows you to search for suites only. That is a good way to find the best deal on the hotel suites at the date of your stay. Worth checking before booking a standard room. Might also give you an insight on which hotel has the most suite availability.

  18. How far in advance do you think it is best to ask for an upgrade via email. Can I hurt my chances if I ask too far out (say a month) when they don’t yet have a good sense of occupancy and may be less willing to confirm in advance? Will the record be noted “asked for upgrade, denied”? 🙂

  19. Fascinating and full of great ideas. I live in Vegas and you are right. This town runs on tips and nothing more. From the minute one gets off the plane and someone helps with their luggage, to the cashier in the casino when you cash out, to the gentleman who points out directions. A little buck and you have it made. I didn’t notice if it was mentioned, but whatever city you are in, tip big up front. Then you are set for the rest of your stay; $50 to the doorman, 30-40% on your dinner (if service was in fact excellent), etc. It will make them happy and they will do all possible to make your trip fantastic. This is a small town. One degree of separation between all of us. One nice tip may mean the difference between free tickets to one of the hottest shows on the Strip and watching street performers. (By the way, it works everywhere. When I was 12, my mother and I were in Paris, France. We were exhausted and hungry. The closest hotel was the Scribe. The front desk was turning people away. My mother said to me, ‘your father taught me that there is always another room for the right price.’ She was right.

  20. @Gregg Leeser, work in Vegas tourist industry much? 😉 This reads like a promotional brochure.

    Seriously, what can one expect for a $50 tip to the doorman??! Besides a special meter-off tourist taxi “just for you”? I must be living on a different planet.

    Definitely another strong reason to avoid Vegas 🙂

  21. I might have to try this tipping when I visit Vegas next week and see how far I can get. lol This article was very helpful. WOW at that suite in San Diego!! Thats awesome.

  22. I was upgraded at a room at the Gaylord in Orlando when I told them it was my birthday that day. They upgraded me to a suit next to the dining ship. Thought that was nice.

  23. I’m wondering as a Diamond, do you ask what on checkin if you have received an upgrade or do you just assume that they have given you one? Is it automatic if you are Diamond? Am a new Diamond and have had 2 stays where there did not see to be any difference in service on check in than before when Plat…

  24. Like the idea of a nice tip up front getting me an upgrade, but I was wondering if you’d ever done this and then discovered upon check out that you had been billed extra for the nicer room? Is there any risk of running into this when trying to employ this tactic?

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